Writing Family Histories for the Nonwriter

Genealogy research should go beyond finding documents and filling in names and dates on charts. After finding my first family documents, saving the information in a family history for my children and future generations became a priority. However, I was reluctant to write a family history because I was uncomfortable with the grammar rules and organizing my thoughts into clear statements. I also felt I could not give my research to another person to write the narrative because they could not feel my connection with my ancestors as a researcher and a family member. Fortunately, I developed a method that overcame my reluctance, and this process should also work for most nonwriters.

My strategy for writing my family history is to initially focus on transcribing the information into summaries for each ancestor. These entries can be bullet points; I use sentences, but they do not have to be. This method helps me start the process and should work for most people to overcome their fear and reluctance to start writing their family history.

I visualize my initial entries for an ancestor as just recording information. As a result, my first entries have an encyclopedic format and could be considered boring. Here is a sample:

“The baptismal record for my grandmother, Anna Chmielewska, indicates she was born on June 26, 1899, in Pierzshaly, Poland, to Aleksander Chmielewski and Julianna Zaluska.”

This format is mechanical. After using it frequently, remembering specific words, phases, and the sentence structure for each type of record is easy. Each entry begins with the name of the record type, followed by a verb such as lists, indicates, or shows. Next, enter the person’s name and then list the information in the document. Using this method, I can record the information quickly and accurately in my summaries for each ancestor because the words flow freely. In addition, frequent use has trained my eyes where to look for the information.

I use summaries as my primary research document and refer to them when needing facts to do more research. I also update them conscientiously when I find new information. Having all the information for an individual in one place is another benefit because it helps find new info faster. Additionally, I list the information in chronological order, which will slowly tell the stories. Finally, the latest info, details, and stories help me expand the initial encyclopedic entry into an appealing narrative. For example, here is the current narrative describing my grandmother’s birth and the walk to the church for her baptism.

“Anna was born at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 26, 1899, to Aleksander Chmielewski and Julia Zaluska in a small cottage in the farming village Przezdziecko-Pierzchaly, Polish Russia.

“In Poland, fathers choose the names of their sons, and mothers select their daughters’ names. Additionally, Polish parents often give their children saint’s names, and usually, the name is associated with the saint for the day of the birth. However, the saint’s name for June 26 was not Anna, so I do not know why my grandmother received her name.

On the day after Anna’s birth, Aleksander put Julia and the baby onto his horse cart and led them down the dirt road three miles to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Andrzejewo for Anna’s baptism. Walking behind their father were Anna’s four siblings – Marianna (age 17), Boleslaw (age 14), Stefania (age 12), and Hipolit (age 6).

“Also joining the procession were Grandfather Adam Chmielewski and the godparents Franciszek and Emilia Uscinski. Emilia was Julia’s first cousin, and, as godmother, she was responsible for dressing the infant for the christening.

“Another group accompanying the family to the church were Jozef Sutkowski, age forty-two, and Aleksander Sutkowski, age forty, who were needed as witnesses to the birth. They were farmers in Pierzchaly and brothers to Anna’s grandmother Teodora who had died four years prior.

“Grandmother Franciszka Zaluska and other family members met them in Andrzejewo because they lived near the church. Babka, who helped with Anna’s birth,  stayed behind in the village to organize the christening party.”

I may seem creative in my words in the second example, but I did not make up the details. They came from the documents and photos:

  • Birth and Baptismal Dates – from Anna’s baptismal record
  • Birthplace and location of church – from Anna’s baptismal record
  • Descendant from Nobility – from Anna’s baptismal record and the baptismal and marriage records of her parents
  • Size of the cottage – from vintage pictures of the village
  • Condition of roads – from vintage photos of the area
  • Origins of her name – from books on Polish customs
  • The list of people attending the baptism- from birth, marriage, and death records for the friends and family of the Chmielewski family and the village of Pierzchaly
  • Distance to the church – calculation from a map

Remember that sources of details and stories that go beyond the traditional documents are county histories, books on ethnic customs and traditions, maps, newspaper articles, and stories about daily life in the same area. Most of these sources do not mention your ancestors, but they give you insights into their lives.

Another essential resource is the older photos in family albums. Ask relatives to identify the event and the people. Also, review the images that show the inside of the homes. Also, there were clues and details related to my ancestors in the photos I saw in books and online collections – especially those depicting the neighborhood where they lived and worked. Additionally, the details sometimes may give clues to areas needing even more research.

Another source of clues is asking questions about the information you have found. The lack of an answer points to areas that need more research.

  • Where did they live? Find pictures of the home
  • Why did they move? Read the history of the area, focusing on what drew your ancestors to the area or drove them away
  • What was their occupation? Read accounts that describe the skills and effort they needed to do their jobs
  • What social history affected their lives? Only include events that directly affected them

The last essential part of my method is to write entries with an audience in mind. Picturing the audience helps to write for them in clear narratives. In my case, I try to envision my grandchildren or great-grandchildren reading my stories.

Whatever format the summary has, it serves two purposes: first, as research notes, so you can quickly research further, and second, as a readable document, you can easily share it with your family. In addition, the information is in a format your family does not have to know the genealogical jargon to understand what you share with them.

Points to Remember:

  • Be accurate in recording the data from documents
  • Add descriptive information to your statements found in other sources
  • Add first-person accounts when available
  • Use your voice, style, and vocabulary
  • Do not exaggerate
  • Omit needless words (keep it simple)
  • Focus on recording the information and saving stories, and your family history will appear

However, I must caution you that once you start, you may get addicted to this exciting journey along your family’s past. My research has brought many ancestors back to life. Sometimes, I can feel them looking over my shoulder as I enter their stories onto their pages. That feeling may seem crazy, but that’s the connection that may occur.

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